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The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana by Dion Boucicault premiered in New York City on December 6, 1859. The title refers to a person who is one-eighth black. The Octoroon was a controversial play when it debuted, given its focus on slavery when the pre-Civil War United States was engaged in a heated debate over the institution. Abolitionist John Brown was hanged just three days before the play’s debut, which is seen as one of the catalyst events that started the Civil War.
The Octoroon takes place on the Terrebonne plantation in Louisiana, which is home to Mrs. Peyton, the widow of a judge. Mrs. Peyton informs her nephew George, who has just returned from Europe, that he is the heir to the Terrebonne estate.
One of the plantation’s overseers, Scudder, enters and informs them that the estate is in a “darned bad condition” (25), and has been mortgaged to a Yankee, Jacob McCloskey (M’Closky), who now owns one-half of the estate’s land. The group also discusses Zoe, who lives at the estate and is the judge’s illegitimate child, although Mrs. Peyton “loves [her] as if she’d been her own child” (26). Zoe enters along with Mr. Sunnyside, a plantation owner, and his Southern belle daughter, Dora, who tells Zoe she is in love with George.
M’Closky then enters and it is immediately clear the group does not like him. George leaves to go hunting and calls a young slave boy, Paul, who brings his Native American friend Wahnotee. Although Sunnyside calls Wahnotee a “nuisance,” Zoe defends him as a “gentle, honest creature” who loves Paul “with the tenderness of a woman” (30). Mrs. Peyton instead tells Paul to go fetch the mailbags because she is waiting for an important letter from Liverpool.
M’Closky then breaks some tragic news: The bank is foreclosing on their mortgage and Terrebonne is up for sale. Mrs. Peyton hopes that the letter she’s awaiting from Liverpool will save the estate, as it concerns a debt owed to her husband that may now be paid back. After they leave, M’Closky reveals he actually hates the Peytons and vows to “sweep [them] from this section of the country” (33). He then confesses his love for Zoe. After sparring with Scudder over their role in the Peytons’ downfall and offering Zoe the chance to be the mistress of her own plantation (she refuses), M’Closky goes through the judge’s desk and finds Zoe’s free papers, realizing that due to the judge’s debts, Zoe, an Octoroon, is still a slave. M’Closky vows to “own that Octoroon” (37) and get the mailbag before Paul and Wahnotee, so that he may steal the letter and prevent the Peytons from saving their estate.
Act II begins with Scudder showing off his camera, when Pete, an older slave, enters to say the estate has officially been put up for sale. Dora tells Zoe that she could save the house with her wealth as an heiress if George marries her. When Zoe speaks to George to tell him that, he confesses his love for Zoe instead. Zoe reciprocates his feelings but says that they cannot be together, as she is an Octoroon and interracial marriage is illegal. George says he can “overcome the obstacle” (43), but Zoe protests that they cannot be together. M’Closky overhears their conversation, but still vows he’ll “have her if it costs [him] [his] life” (44). Paul and Wahnotee arrive back with the mailbags and play around with the camera. M’Closky enters, and upon seeing Paul sitting on the mailbag, he uses Wahnotee’s tomahawk to kill Paul. M’Closky steals the letter, leaving before Wahnotee finds Paul’s dead body and smashes the camera to pieces in grief.
In Act III, the auction for the estate and its slaves is about to begin, and a group of plantation owners and auctioneers arrive at Terrebonne. Upon learning of Paul’s murder, they immediately believe Wahnotee did it and vow to “lynch him” (48) if he is found. Scudder tells Pete to go listen to what the men say about the house, while Mrs. Peyton enters and says she’ll remain at the house until the law compels her to leave. Scudder tells them that all could be saved if George marries Dora, but says he knows that Zoe and George are in love. Mrs. Peyton compels George to propose to Dora anyway, but as he begins to do so, he confesses to her that he’s in love with Zoe instead. Dora runs off crying, saying: “I hate you both” (52).
M’Closky then enters and informs the group of Zoe’s free papers and that she is still a slave. They are all distraught and she cries over her fate, as that means she could be sold to someone else at the slave auction. Dora tells Sunnyside that he must buy Terrebonne and he does so, winning the auction. Zoe is then put up for sale during the slave auction, and despite bids from George, Mr. Sunnyside, and Dora—and George pulling a knife—M’Closky buys her for $25,000.
Act IV takes place by Captain Ratts’s Steamer Magnolia, where Wahnotee has been captured. The group immediately calls for his lynching, but they agree to try him first. They discover a photographic plate showing M’Closky standing over Paul’s body and realize he is the murderer instead. The group tells Wahnotee of M’Closky’s guilt and go to capture M’Closky, calling for his death, when M’Closky escapes, lighting the shed and ship on fire as he does. As the men try to put out the fire, M’Closky swims away while Wahnotee follows to get revenge.
Act V begins in the slave quarters, where Zoe approaches one slave woman, Dido, to ask for a liquid to use for curing fevers. Although she claims it’s because someone is sick, she actually wants to use the liquid to poison herself. Dido protests, but Zoe steals the liquid and runs away. M’Closky, meanwhile, is beginning to go crazy, believing he is being followed (which he is, by Wahnotee). Scudder and Pete enter to tell the group of M’Closky’s guilt when M’Closky enters and is quickly rushed on by Wahnotee. M’Closky asks Scudder to help him, but he instead simply gives him his bowie knife and leaves him to his own defenses.
Zoe enters to say goodbye to Dora and George but faints and tells George to give her the poisonous liquid, claiming it’s a “restorative” (73). After she takes the liquid, Scudder enters and informs them of M’Closky’s guilt and the found letter, but it is too late—Zoe is dying. As she dies, Zoe tells George that now “no laws will stand between us. […] George, you may, without a blush, confess your love for the Octoroon” (75). The play then ends with a final image of Wahnotee standing triumphantly at Paul’s grave over M’Closky’s dead body.
The Octoroon explores themes of slavery and racial identification and discrimination, although it does not fully commit to either side of the slavery debate. The play, which follows many conventions of melodrama, was deemed to be too tragic when performed in the United Kingdom, and the ending was changed to feature Zoe and George leaving for England to get married in a land without miscegenation laws.